I step onto the runners at the back of the dogsled. Following instructions, I rock the sled back and forth a couple of times, then shove it forward with the not-exactly-dashing command, "Let's go!"
I'm not prepared for what happens next. The sled takes off like a teenager's car when the light turns green. In fact, I feel exactly the way I did the first time I drove a car. I can't believe the power. I'm not quite sure I can handle it. And nothing I've ever done in my life has been more fun.
I'm going mushing in Minnesota and Ontario along the North Shore of Lake Superior. It's bleakly beautiful country. Leafless white birch trees stand stark against the brilliant blue sky. The brawny lake itself, a more sullen shade of blue, washes restlessly against a shore decorated with a lacy rim of ice.
Farther north into Canada, miniature icebergs crowd the edge of the water, muttering irritably as each wave ripples through. Some sheltered bays freeze solid.
Today, I'm flying along the wooded trails near Grand Marais (muh-RAY), Minnesota, 120 miles northeast of Duluth. Arleigh Jorgenson Sled Dog Adventures has provided me with a five-dog team.
"What this is really about is developing a relationship between you and the dogs," Arleigh says. "And that means trust. The dogs will want to know that you know your job."
I soon learn what he means. Mine is the middle of three teams, behind Arleigh and in front of Odin Jorgenson, Arleigh's son, recently out of college. At a crossroads, Arleigh's team goes straight. My dogs suddenly veer right, onto another trail (which, I later learn, leads back home).
"Haw, McLeod!" I yell to my colead dog. "Haw!" Somehow, I manage to remember the command for "turn left." ("Gee" means "turn right." "Whoa" means "whoa.")
The dogs immediately head back in the correct direction. Just testing the new guy.
Driving a dogsled, I discover, is like coaching a sports team. You tell the dogs what you want them to do. Whether they actually do it is up to them. After all, there aren't any reins to guide their path. So the best mushers, like the best coaches, establish a rapport with their athletes instead of just hollering at them.
"Women and children are very good at this," Arleigh says. "Men are probably the worst."
Both Arleigh and his friends Will and Jennifer Evans of Norwest Sled Dog Adventures, an hour-plus north of Grand Marais in Thunder Bay, Ontario, use Alaskan huskies. Of the sled-dog breeds, they're the fastest.
The term "Alaskan husky" seems about as precise as "American." These are working dogs, not purebreds. Breeders are constantly tinkering, crossing with greyhounds, German shepherds―sometimes, according to rumors, even wolves.
Alaskan huskies are about the size of a small German shepherd, but much leggier and leaner. They average, Arleigh says, only 40 to 55 pounds, but they pack a lot of power and endurance into those marathon-runner bodies. More than anything else in the world, they love to run and pull.
"It's like the Labrador retriever chasing a stick all day," says Will. "It's what they've been bred to do." Will and Jennifer have a smaller operation―35 dogs, compared with Arleigh's 120. On one of their trails, we actually run across Jarvis Bay, a hard-frozen arm of Lake Superior. I've never much cared for winter weather, but the otherworldliness of this tortured landscape beguiles me.
It's amazing how well you get to know a dog team in just a few hours. McLeod, my colead, is big and strong, fiercely determined not to let the team ahead run away from him. Raiche (pronounced "raysh"), his partner, is as sweet-natured as McLeod is imperious. She's 4 inches shorter than McLeod but matches him stride for stride.
Behind them on the tug line (the surprisingly thin rope to which all the dogs are attached) comes Swede, pure white with pale, ice-blue eyes. She looks at me in cold disillusion, expecting that I will be the latest in a long line of men to disappoint her. Of all my dogs, she is closest to being a wolf.
Midway during the day's run, she gets a neighbor in harness, Tigre (pronounced "tigger"). He looks similar to a short-furred collie but he's actually one-eighth greyhound, which shows in his long snout and powerful hind-quarters. He's a tireless puller who snatches mouthfuls of snow as he runs.
The wheel dogs―the pair closest to the sled―are traditionally the strongest. Reggie and Earsell, brothers and best buddies, certainly fit the stereotype of happy-go-lucky jocks. They're even named in honor of athletes: Reggie Jackson, Hall of Fame baseball player, and Earsell Mackbee, a defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings in the late 1960s. Reggie and Earsell (the dogs) have the black-and-white markings and close-set, erect ears of Siberian huskies, though they're actually one-quarter German shepherd.
Whenever I stop the team, the dogs roll around in the snow. The 30-degree temperature is a little warmer than they like.
Then, after just a few seconds, they start looking back at me, their impatience blazing like a neon sign. They want to run. Now. Even though they've already been running for five hours and we're in the middle of a long uphill climb.
I feel unworthy of these valiant animals. I try to concentrate hard on the business of driving the sled, just to live up to their dedication and proud spirit.
At the end of the day, I lavishly pet the dogs and thank each one for giving me such a good time. When I reach my leaders, McLeod gazes into the distance, regally accepting the tribute. Raiche, dear Raiche, begins vigorously licking my face.
Maybe I did all right after all.